Flipping the Line: Always look on the bright side of (trench warfare)
Frustration that the patient is half-dead carries a risk, though, of causing us to forget that the patient is still half alive.
The Line welcomes angry rebuttals and responses to our work. The best will be featured in our ongoing series, Flipping the Line. Today, Clarke Ries expresses concern that Andrew Potter is fomenting a self-fulfilling prophecy on Ukraine.
By: Clarke Ries
I’m grateful to Andrew Potter for his well-written piece on the often gormless behaviour of Ukraine’s Western supporters. I hesitate to use the term “allies”, as none have formal alliances with Ukraine — which is why Western assistance resembles an interminable charity drive for famine victims who don’t know it’s Christmas.
I disagree with little of what Potter wrote. I especially support his condemnation of the West’s eagerness to blame Ukraine for its fizzled counteroffensive, despite our fatal hesitation properly supplying Ukraine for the task.
I do think frustration that the patient is half-dead carries a risk, though, of causing us to forget that the patient is still half alive. While the bad actors on this file are behaving appallingly, there are still willing souls in the trenches, political and actual, and the fat lady has not yet sung.
Yes, after years of misbegotten foreign adventures, the Republican Party is reverting toward isolationism, that foundational gravitational pull of American foreign policy. But just this week, rumours circulated about a grand bargain between US President Joe Biden and Republicans: immigration, asylum, and border security reform that many Democrats consider draconian, in exchange for approval of a $149 billion* aid package that would likely double the total aid the United States has provided Ukraine to date.
Yes, a similarly massive $73-billion European Union aid package to Ukraine is imperiled by the threat of a veto from an increasingly Russo-philic and autocratic Hungary, whose every appearance in the news is a continuing and painful reminder that the EU lacks an expulsion clause. But the EU executive also controls access to $29 billion of development aid that Hungary desperately wants and has indicated it’s willing to bargain for (currently frozen due to concerns over Hungarian illiberalism). If negotiations fail, the other EU member states will discuss delivering the aid package to Ukraine ad hoc instead of through the EU itself.
Yes, Canada’s own Conservatives are playing to their worst instincts on this file, including their recent vote against the Canada-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement. But Conservative votes do not currently matter, and likely will not for another two years. Credit where it’s due, the Liberals have been consistent and serious in their support of Ukraine, providing the sixth-most total aid of any country since the start of the conflict, roughly proportionate as a percentage of our GDP to the support provided by the United States.
Nor is all of this assistance — past and likely future — being dumped into a bottomless hole. Hesitant as I am to appear to disagree with Ukraine’s top general, I don’t believe the term “stalemate” is an apt description of the current conflict — nor do I think would he, were he presented with the actual definition of the word in English.
"Stalemate" is originally a chess term, coined to describe an end state in which neither side is able to make progress. Anybody following the war via reference to a territorial control map can be forgiven for thinking “stalemate” is a perfectly accurate description. But progress comes in many forms.
Military officers from Sun Tzu to John Boyd certainly prefer the territorial kind of progress, epitomized by maneuver warfare in which speed and guile overwhelm the enemy. Maneuver warfare, however, is aspirational. It’s not enough to be fast and cunning, you must be faster and more cunning than your opponent, and you must fight them in an arena that allows that movement.
All too often, one or more of those wishes doesn’t come true.
The result is positional warfare: a slugging match in which you’re forced to take punches in order to deliver them. The Western Front in the First World War is the most famous example of modern positional warfare, but it’s far from the only instance of it. From the Richmond–Petersburg campaign to the Iran-Iraq War, positional warfare develops whenever opposing generals cannot find and turn a flank, and when both combatants are too tough for either side to break through the enemy’s front line directly.
If maneuver warfare is as old as the cavalry raid, positional warfare is as old as the hill fort. Just as territory is the currency of maneuver, attrition is the currency of positional warfare. Progress is no longer measured in the square footage of a map painted blue, but in the destruction of personnel, materiel, economic capacity, and morale, until the moment comes when the other guy can no longer stop you from maneuvering — or simply says “no más”.
Attrition is an inelegant, suboptimal form of progress, but it’s progress nonetheless. It took four years for attrition to break a positional deadlock on the Western Front in which battle lines barely budged — and then suddenly started shifting by the kilometer.
It wasn't tanks that did it, or biplanes, or the invention of any new battlefield tactic. Germany simply ran out of the stuff to maintain the front line. Starving, embittered soldiers surrendered en masse while factories melted down church bells for artillery shells. The result was wholesale positional collapse.
Ukraine may not have moved the front line very far this past year, but the attrition they’ve inflicted on every resource that permits Russia to hold onto that front line has been incredible.
Russia has nearly emptied its massive stockpiles from its glory years as a superpower — culminating in the combat deployment this past summer of “mammoth crap” manufactured in the 1950s — and it’s building tanks, artillery systems, and attack helicopters at only a fraction of the rate at which it’s losing them. The result has been the standardization of "meat assaults" in which Russian officers fling untrained conscripts at prepared Ukrainian defences without armour support or preparatory bombardment.
This is a strategy that relies on conscripts drawn from Russia’s prisons, its minority ethnic communities, and its rural working class. It is also a strategy that relies on conscripts not knowing what fate awaits them on the front lines. As word spreads and casualties mount, Russia is forced to rely on a pool of conscripts more frantic to avoid the draft and hailing from more politically influential sectors of society.
Recent polling of the Russian public suggests they’d very much like the war to end, but can’t abide the thought of surrendering occupied Zaporizhzhia or Kherson in peace negotiations. I don’t doubt that polling; I’m sure they feel very strongly about the matter. But there’s nothing like your darling son being drafted out of college to partake in a “meat assault” on a slag heap outside a bombed-out Ukrainian mining town to clarify priorities.
Nor is conscription the only source of strain on the home front: Russia has lost its ability to defend the value of the ruble, which has recently fallen to historic lows against the US dollar and rendered all imports cripplingly expensive. Despite a rapidly climbing central-bank interest rate that recently hit 15 per cent, the unofficial Russian inflation rate appears to be considerable, with anecdotal evidence suggesting that the cost of staples has more than doubled.
None of this is to suggest that Russian collapse is imminent, but the status quo is about as stable as a hard-fought arm-wrestling contest. Nobody’s arm may initially move very much, but you’d laugh if anybody called it a “frozen conflict”. Somebody’s muscle fibres or tolerance for pain will eventually give out.
Ukraine’s tolerance for pain remains incredibly high. Its weak link is the continued supply of Western armaments. Russia’s best chance of severing that link is to persuade the West of what I've taken to calling the Red Army myth: the post-1945 pop culture belief that the Russian war machine can simply carry on indefinitely, no matter how brutal or stupid or costly its tactics, because...well, that's just the nature of Russia, right?
That's what Russia was capable of when supplied with 17.5 million tons of American aid, imperial control of Ukraine and Belarus, and elite Polish and British cryptography that had broken its enemy's codes. When Russia does not have all of those advantages, its achievements in large-scale modern warfare are underwhelming. The First World War ended with the abdication of the Tsar. The Russo-Japanese War ended with the Russian army in panicked retreat and the Russian navy sunk. The Crimean War ended with Russian defeat at the siege of Sevastopol. When the enemy isn't the hapless late-stage Ottoman Empire or a tiny province in rebellion, Russia looks quite fallible.
The other problem, in addition to a limited toolbox of analogies leaving everything looking like a nail, is that individual people don't operate on the timescale on which industrial nation-states fight, especially when those states are relatively evenly-matched and fighting in deadly earnest. Industrial warfare isn’t just inhumanly bloody, it’s inhumanly protracted. How could something that takes this long and costs this much and has caused such death possibly be going well?
The war in Ukraine has been raging for less than two years, but to attention spans attuned to the length of the school year, the length of network TV seasons, the length of Stanley Cup campaigns, the whole affair has outstayed its welcome. The irony, I believe, is that if you presented the situation as it stands today to somebody with no previous knowledge of the war, they'd think Ukraine was doing brilliantly, and would be surprised at any sense of gloom or defeatism on the part of Ukraine's supporters.
And yet here we are.
Our enemy is not so much Russia as pessimism and impatience. The best way of fighting back may simply be to remember to look on the bright side: never has a cause so obviously just and so geopolitically beneficial demanded so little of the West. The defence of the latest victim of Russian imperial aggression, and the destruction of Russia as a great power capable of credibly threatening the West for a generation, requires only a modicum of discipline and a fraction of our collective budget. I’m grateful that so far, the West continues to come up with both – however unevenly and imperfectly.
*All figures are in Canadian dollars.
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